DALLAS -- It happens with alarming frequency: A parent or day-care worker, often busy or distracted, leaves a helpless child in a vehicle with the windows rolled up, and the youngster dies in the heat.
So far this year, at least 36 children in the United States have died under similar circumstances.
In one such case last week, it was about 100 degrees in Dallas when 8-month-old Jordan Thomas was forgotten inside a day-care center's sport-utility vehicle. Inside, the temperature soared to a blistering 130 to 140 degrees.
Experts and advocacy groups say such deaths usually result from forgetfulness rather than any deliberate disregard for the child's safety.
"The screaming message here is that for any period of time, you don't leave a child unattended in a car," said Jan Null, an adjunct professor of meteorology at San Francisco State University who tracks such deaths.
The number of reported heat deaths is higher than ever, Null said, increasing from 25 when he first began recording figures from news reports and child advocacy groups in 1998. There were 31 in 1999, 28 in 2000 and 34 in 2001. He described the figures as conservative estimates, saying many cases probably go unreported.
What many people do not realize is just how quickly cars and trucks can become stifling death traps. Null said interior temperatures can soar to 105 in less than a half-hour on a 72-degree day. Cracking the windows only slows the heat buildup.
Janette Fennell, founder and president of the advocacy group Kids And Cars in Kansas City, Kan., said most cases of heat deaths involve either new parents or those who have recently changed their driving routine.
"The lion's share are loving, caring, devoted parents. We're talking educated people who love and adore their kids," Fennell said. "It says a little bit about the society we live in today. We're rushed, we're hurried; one little change can mean the difference between life and death."
Two weeks ago, a professor's 10-month-old son died after being locked in a car at the University of California at Irvine for more than three hours while temperatures were in the 90s. The youngster's father, Mark J. Warschauer, was described as a doting parent by neighbors. No immediate charges were filed.
Experts say a few simple precautions could drastically reduce such tragedies.
Fennell suggested placing reminders in the car, such as a bag of diapers in the front seat or a purse or briefcase in the back with the child.
"Put something that you have to have today in the back seat, where it's going to force you to check the back seat. Eventually, it becomes a habit," she said.
Fennell said fewer than 2 percent of such deaths result from people deliberately leaving a child in a car.
Last week, a mother from Springdale, Ark., was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter for allegedly leaving her 3-year-old daughter to die in a hot car. Police said they believe Mary Christina Cordell, 36, was playing an Internet game for two hours while her daughter was in the car.
And last year in suburban Detroit, a woman was charged with murder for leaving her two children, 10 months old and 3, to die inside her sweltering car in 100-degree heat while she had her hair and nails done and shopped for a dress. Tarajee Maynor, who is awaiting trial, initially told police that she had been abducted and raped and returned to her car to find her children.
According to the Web site of Fennell's group, nine states -- California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Nebraska, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington -- make it illegal to leave a child alone in a vehicle. In California, for example, anyone caught leaving a child 7 or younger alone in a car can be fined $100.
Jordan died Wednesday after a driver for T&T Tots Day Care & Learning Center picked him up from his home in the morning but forgot to drop him off at the day-care center. That afternoon, the driver found him dead in a carrier seat toward the back of the vehicle. Police have not charged the unidentified driver.
Texas guidelines require constant supervision of children at day-care centers, Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services spokesman Geoffrey Wool said, adding that the centers must keep a list of all children during field trips and other outings involving vehicles.
Wool said he did not know if the driver in Jordan's case had such a list.
On the Net:
Jan Null's Web Site: http://ggweather.com/heat/
Kids And Cars: http://kidsandcars.org